Last month Johannesburg filmmaker Akin Omotoso, who directed a documentary about Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, flew to Lagos to attend the launch of Soyinka’s political party, The Democratic Front for a People’s Federation, and to relive some childhood memories:
The intensity of Lagos seemed a fitting choice for the timing of the launch.
The DFPF had emerged from the pro-democracy movements of the National Liberation Front of Nigeria and the United Front of Nigeria, which were at the forefront of the anti-Abacha struggle between 1994 and 1998.
There was a lot of mystery around the DFPF in Nigeria, and everyone was obsessed with whether Soyinka was putting himself forward as a candidate for the 2011 presidential elections.
I wanted to see how a man who had consistently been a voice of reason – the conscience of the nation, even – would negotiate the presidential platform. From the time he burst onto the literary scene in the early 1960s, he was critical of the government.
The first 17 years of my life were spent in Nigeria, living in Ife, which is a university town similar to Stellenbosch. Growing up, I had the privilege of being surrounded by some of the greatest African writers of our time. Among them my father – Kole Omotoso – and Ben Okri, Nuruddin Farrah and Soyinka.
I was 12 when Soyinka won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986. My brother and I wrote a short, three-minute play, about two people trying to get to Sweden to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony.
We performed our two-hander for him when he came to visit one evening before leaving for Stockholm. At the time we were simply performing a play for “Uncle Wole”.
I had seen a few of his plays but had very little knowledge of his political activity at the time. For instance, I didn’t know then that in 1960, he had been commissioned to stage a play for Nigeria’s very first celebration of its independence. In the play, A Dance of the Forests, Soyinka put forth a vision of a new Africa and warned Africans of repeating the mistakes of the past. It did not go down well with the political elite. But if that play didn’t sit well with politicians, another act soon made him an icon to the people of Nigeria – and the world took note.
In 1964, an election took place in western Nigeria. The ruling party rigged the elections and used violence to silence its opposition. Afterwards, the “winning” party was due to address the region. The premier’s message had been pre-recorded and merely had to be delivered to the radio station for broadcast at 7pm.
At the appointed hour, however, instead of the voice of the premier, people were shocked to hear a strange voice accosting the ruling party politicians, saying: “I call on you, in the name of the people, before your blood is used to water the streets, to go away, to pack up.”
It went on for a few seconds before the people at the station realised what had gone wrong. Soyinka had hijacked the radio station and replaced the premier’s speech with his own. He has never kept silent, no matter the cost.
What would happen to such a man if he were president?
“Comrades-in-arms in the embattled field of the Nigerian nation space – welcome!” Soyinka’s voice resonated through the hall as he welcomed everyone to the launch of DFPF.
“This is not a political rally,” he said. “It is simply a convention.
“A convention to clean up and transform Nigeria’s nationhood into a democratic sanctuary for her citizens: The DFPF is an experiment, challenging some fundamental issues. Is it impossible to have a voice unless you are swimming in billions of naira? What if a party existed that was not interested in winning elections, but instead wanted to effect change one ward, one local government, one state at a time?”
Soyinka spoke of the vicious cycle of Nigerian politics as one in which the politicians “steal, use the proceeds to return to power, use power to steal some more, use the increased proceeds to return to power and so on and so on”.
The DFPF, then, seeks to function as a civic platform that moulds, without standing corporately for elections, the democratic character of a people.
Is it impossible to have a voice unless you are swimming in naira? The DFPF has zero financial resources but as its manifesto says, it’s a party of infinite resources, since the human resource of which its initiators are amply endowed is unquantifiable. That has to be worth celebrating.